Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate, June 14, 2018

FirstNet and Interoperability.  During speeches at the recent PSCR meeting in San Diego, two people made points that started me thinking about what lies ahead for FirstNet. The first was the Chair of The FirstNet Authority, Sue Swenson, who talked about FirstNet ending Chapter One on a high note and starting Chapter Two. The second was TJ Kennedy, who announced formation of the Public Safety Technical Alliance (PSTA), a non-profit that has been formed to work with the public safety community, vendors, and others to ensure components for FirstNet (Built by AT&T) meet the open standard mandate put into place by FirstNet the Authority.

Sue talked about the first chapter for FirstNet being a long one for many of us, spanning more than ten years. However, it concluded with the network in place, all 56 states and territories opting in, a large number of public safety agencies joining FirstNet (Built by AT&T), more approved devices coming to market, and momentum that will carry us into Chapter Two. As promised, the network is nationwide, it provides end-to-end encryption, has its own core, and delivers full pre-emption for the first responder community. Chapter Two then will be about what runs on the network and how to maintain full interoperability. The rationale for FirstNet was to provide a coast-to-coast and border-to-border network where vehicles and people could move into other jurisdictions to assist in an incident and not only have a common network but to be assured that what rides on the network in terms of applications, data access, and voice are all fully interoperable.

To this end, TJ Kennedy and a host of others formed the PSTA to work with FirstNet, public safety, vendors, and others to make sure what flows over the network is “operable” for all. However, before we start on Chapter Two, we must first understand that like any broadband network, it will never be truly finished. It will continue to grow, new sites will be added as needed, and it will encompass 5G small cells, the Internet of Things (IoT), and other related purposes for the network. AT&T recently committed $2 billion to building out FirstNet in rural America, which will also enable rural businesses and citizens to gain access to broadband they have never had before. Even after the 25-year contract is over, the network will continue to grow and expand using whatever new technology replaces 4G and 5G.
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GAO Report Released: Emergency Communications: Increased Regional Collaboration Could Enhance Capabilities

GAO-18-379: Published: Apr 26, 2018. Publicly Released: May 29, 2018.

During emergencies, first responders need to be able to communicate with each other—even across jurisdictions. After Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed a law to help first responders do just that. The law created working groups to improve regional collaboration. Each group has members from different levels of government, as well as from the private sector.

We found that these groups have generally worked well at the regional level—members shared information and assisted each other during emergencies. However, we recommended that FEMA encourage nationwide collaboration among the groups.  Read report here.

Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate, May 24, 2018

FirstNet Everywhere, Partnerships (Again)

I just returned from the largest amateur (ham) radio convention in the United States, held each year near Dayton, Ohio or, to be precise, at the Greene County Fairgrounds in Xenia, Ohio. I mention this event for a number of reasons, the first of which is that many of those attending have day jobs working for public safety as sworn personnel or in the IT or communications departments. Many who designed and built the Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems used by public safety today were hams who first experienced communications as a new ham radio operator.

A number of federal government employees and contractors also attend. I was amused that AT&T had a booth in one the buildings and I went to visit it only to find this was the DirectTV group and not the wireless group. The interest in FirstNet was high this year and I had many discussions with those I met about the progress FirstNet and AT&T are making. I especially enjoyed talking with a group of fire and other public safety personnel in a flea market booth. They read my articles and were very interested in my perspective on FirstNet. I also enjoyed talking about the Harris XL-200 4-band handheld I was carrying and my Sonim XP8 phone.

I was happy to see so many pubic safety people there who knew about FirstNet. In previous years they would look confused until FirstNet was explained to them but this year I did not have to do much explaining. When talking with some federal employees and contractors, I learned one of the contractors retired from his federal job and is now a consultant to the same agency. Our discussion was disturbing to say the least. It turns out that the federal government wants to redo its communications contracts and stop using wired connections. This may be the wave of the future, but it appears as though none of those suggesting the changes to the contracts or changes in vendors truly understand that eliminating the need for copper wires is not simply about replacing them with fiber and Voice over IP (VoIP).

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Official: Some Agencies in North Carolina ‘Scared’ of FirstNet

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -— Some public safety agencies in North Carolina, particularly small agencies in rural areas, are “scared”  of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and are unlikely to subscribe anytime soon to the service that AT&T, Inc., FirstNet’s network partner, is offering, a state official said here today.

The comments came at the North Carolina Public Safety Broadband Summit, which was held in conjunction with the 2018 Connectivity Expo, which was organized by the Wireless Infrastructure Association. “In certain parts of North Carolina, I don’t think they’re ready, so they’re scared,” Gregory Hauser, North Carolina’s statewide interoperability coordinator, said during a session this afternoon. He said that feeling is particularly prevalent in rural areas.

“For now in North Carolina … this is going to be a metro advancement,” Mr. Hauser said of FirstNet subscribership, citing major cities such as Charlotte, Raleigh, and Greensboro.

Asked what the concerns were for public safety agencies in rural areas, he said “coverage” and cost were the two largest. “We’re going to need some help,” Mr. Hauser said of the cost issue, adding that grant or other funding would be necessary for some agencies.

“We’re going to get there. I think we all realize that,” he added. “How we get there is going to be pretty painful.” Continue reading

AT&T Reps Highlight Benefits of FirstNet Offering

CHARLOTTE, N.C. –— AT&T, Inc., representatives, including former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, argued today that AT&T’s public safety broadband offering for the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is far superior than any other option available to public safety agencies, and Mr. Davis suggested that police agencies will choose FirstNet because they “follow the law.”

Mr. Davis, an AT&T consultant, and Chad Tucker, a FirstNet consultant manager for AT&T, discussed AT&T’s offering during a keynote session this morning at the 2018 Connectivity Expo, which was organized by the Wireless Infrastructure Association. AT&T’s FirstNet brand is featured prominently at the show here this week. It is a sponsor of the overall show, and the collocated North Carolina Public Safety Broadband Summit.

Mr. Davis stressed the benefits that the FirstNet system would have provided it if had been available after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, including offering priority and preemption for first responders when cellular networks were overloaded as well as broadband access and interoperability. He also said that the network will allow public safety agencies to take advantage of the innovation of a Fortune 500 company.  “There has never been a research and development arm of policing in the United States,” he added.

Mr. Tucker suggested that AT&T’s preemption is being done in a way that no one else is doing, even though Verizon Communications, Inc., also offers priority service and preemption for its public safety broadband offering that is competing with that of AT&T’s for FirstNet. Mr. Tucker also stressed that AT&T has a “dedicated core,” for public safety, “not a virtual core,” and “end-to-end encryption.” Continue reading

Fewer than One-Third of Providers Have 911 Circuit Diversity, Monitoring

Fewer than one-third of the 188 communications service providers that offer 911 capabilities and filed certifications with the FCC reported having 100% diverse 911 circuits and diverse network monitoring in 2017, according to a report released today by the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. But nearly 90% reported having backup power in all central offices that service public safety answering points (PSAPs).

“Of the 188 covered entities that filed certifications, 48 certified that they have diverse 911 circuits to all PSAPs to which they provide 911 circuits. Twenty covered entities certified that they have implemented alternative measures in lieu of circuit diversity for all of the PSAPs that they serve. Fifteen covered entities certified that they provide diverse 911 circuits to some PSAPs and that they have implemented alternative measures to other PSAPs to which they provide 911 circuits,” the report said. “There were 6,769 unique PSAPs listed in the certifications for 911 circuit diversity. The certifications showed that of these 6,769 PSAPs, 3,855 PSAPs had diverse circuits and 2,914 had implemented alternative measures.”

The report added that of those providers that filed certifications, “51 stated that they have diverse monitoring in all of their 911 service areas, and ten stated that they have certified alternative measures in all 911 service areas. Seven covered entities certified that they provide diverse monitoring in some of their 911 service areas and have implemented alternative measures in all other 911 service areas.”

The report also said that of the carriers that submitted certifications, “165 indicated that they have certified backup power in all central offices that serve PSAPs. Nine certified that they have alternative measures for backup power in all such central offices, and four covered entities certified that they have back-up power in some central offices and have implemented alternative measures in all other central offices.”- Paul Kirby, paul.kirby@wolterskluwer.com

Andy Seybold’s Public Safety Advocate, May 3, 2018

Is LMR Old and Out of Date? LTE the Future? For the past few weeks I have been talking with folks in D.C., states, and locally about FirstNet and if and when it will replace Land Mobile Radio (LMR) systems. I have found that among those not directly involved with public safety and do not have much, if any, technical background, there is a great deal of confusion surrounding LMR, FirstNet, and the limited amount of spectrum available to us.

These issues include but are not limited to the perception that LTE and 5G represents the only wireless future and land mobile radio is an antiquated technology that is no longer needed. Further, they believe all spectrum regardless of where it is located in the radio spectrum continuum is worth a fortune and therefore should be converted to broadband spectrum as soon as possible so it can be auctioned. It is interesting that these are the same issues the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and Public Safety Alliance (PSA) faced when they were first engaging with those in the federal government to convince elected officials that public safety needed more broadband spectrum but needed to keep its LMR spectrum as well.

It took a while but public safety gained the support of the governors’ and mayors’ associations. However, when FirstNet was passed, Congress required a give-back of the T-Band spectrum. Part of the reason for this was the belief that the spectrum in these eleven major markets, once vacated by public safety (Congress forgot about business users also authorized in the T-Band), would be worth $billions of dollars and that funding could be used to relocate the T-Band public safety users and pay off a portion of the U.S. debt. However, it has not turned out that way. Now there is a bill in Congress to forgive the T-Band give-back but so far it has not progressed as quickly as we would have liked.

All of the above has convinced me that many of the staffers and those who served in Congress during the years preceding the law that created FirstNet in 2012 have left Congress or are not in the same committees they were. The new guard, as it were, grew up with cell phones. That is all they know, I don’t think any of them have been exposed to handheld radios with push-to-talk-only capabilities, even Family Service Radios (FSRs) that can be purchased for less than $20 in most stores. Nor do I think many, if any, have asked for a ride-along with police or sheriff personnel. Instead, they believe their smartphone can do anything and everything needed by public safety. And when they have a dropped call or cannot access the network it is an inconvenience and they complain, but they don’t seem to realize that it is not the same as a police officer being shot at and needing back-up. In that case, not being able to access the network or not being able to communicate with others can become a whole lot more than an inconvenience.

Even those in charge at FirstNet will tell you that both FirstNet and LMR networks are vital tools for public safety. Most recently, the head of AT&T’s FirstNet efforts was featured and quoted in an article in Urgent Communications and reposted on allthingsfirstnet.com saying the following:

“Push-to-talk over cellular (PoC) already is being used to replace LMR in non-mission-critical scenarios, but learning from those experiences eventually will impact acceptance of MCPTT-standard offerings, according to Chris Sambar, AT&T’s senior vice president for FirstNet.

It will start with extended primary [users] in public safety, and it will move to first responders, in time,” Sambar said last month during an event sponsored by Sonim Technologies. “I don’t know how long that will take. I think there will always be a place for LMR, because it’s a great tool. I think [LMR] will start slowly moving to a backup technology, though. But it will take time.””

Even AT&T understands that both FirstNet and LMR are needed today and into the future to ensure the safety of our first responders. As Mr. Sambar stated, it is possible today to move some administrative and other non-front-line public safety personnel off their LMR systems onto push-to-talk over FirstNet but it will take some time, if ever, for FirstNet to become the only communications platform for public safety.

Looking at the Other Concerns

Is LMR an antiquated technology or a proven technology? LMR was developed and deployed starting in the 1930s and push-to-talk communications were used by the military during World War II and in every conflict since. Some of today’s systems are based on digital technology (P-25) but there are still analog FM LMR systems in use, particularly in smaller agencies. LMR has evolved and now P25 PTT includes group PTT, one-to-one PTT, and the ability to be cross-connected with PTT on FirstNet.

One of the most significant advantages of LMR today is that many LMR systems are much closer to meeting the public safety-grade criteria than FirstNet. However, it is FirstNet’s (AT&T’s) goal to move FirstNet, over time, as close to a public safety-grade network as possible. While some new standards have been developed or are being developed to add even more redundancy to FirstNet, the results of these new standards remain untested.

LMR, on the other hand, has the real advantage of multiple modes of operation. If an LMR system is up and running using multiple sites in one of several modes that make that possible, and one or more sites fail, these sites, if still operational locally, switch to local access. If the site fails completely, units in the area can still communicate with each other using direct mode or off-network communications. This type of fallback is vital to the robustness of LMR. Further, if a site is in standalone operations mode, any unit in range will be able to communicate through the site. In the cellular world today, even if a site remains up but disconnected from the rest of the network, it is not clear whether devices will still be able to use the site because the device IDs and access rights are normally validated in the network core.

The most significant disadvantage FirstNet and all LTE networks have today when it comes to push-to-talk are that off-network PTT is not possible today with LTE. If two units or a group of units want to have a PTT conversation they must be in range of the network and the network must be operational. With LMR, neither of these is required. Off-network PTT can occur within the coverage of a network when one device is in network coverage and one is out of coverage, and if all units are out of coverage. This is a vital function of LMR that must be provided for FirstNet devices if FirstNet is ever to replace LMR PTT functions as well as network-related functions.

What Is Spectrum Worth?

This is an issue for which there are many answers. My answers are based on the following criteria:

  • In what portion of the RF spectrum is the subject spectrum?
  • How much of it is available?
  • What other services will need to be relocated out of this spectrum?
    1. To where will they move?
    2. Who will pay for the relocation?
  • Is the spectrum in a portion designed to cover LTE or 5G?
  • Is it possible to make this spectrum available nationwide?
  • Is the spectrum usable in mobile devices? (antenna size, battery life, device size)
  • Who are potential customers and is there more than one type of customer that might be interested enough in the spectrum to make it more valuable at auction?
  • What other factors might impact the cost of the spectrum?

Let’s start with LTE frequency allocations. According to Radio-Electronics.com, the issue with spectrum allocations for LTE using Frequency Division Duplex (FDD) where the cell site transmits on one part of the spectrum and the device transmits on another (what we are accustomed to), is that there must be sufficient separation between the two portions of spectrum to prevent the receiver from being blocked by the proximity of the transmitter. The FDD chart includes band 31 sets of spectrum at 452.5–457.5-MHz and 462.5–467.5-MHz, both of which are located in highly congested LTE public safety, business, paging, and other LMR systems in the United States. But this band is limited to 5 MHz of bandwidth, which means the value of this spectrum for broadband is very much diminished.

There are also LTE spectrum allocations for Time Division Duplex (TDD) (see some of Sprint’s 2-GHz spectrum holdings). In this case, the cell site and the device transmit on the same radio channel but in time slices so as not to interfere with each other. In TDD, the lowest spectrum supported is band 44, which is 100 MHz of spectrum in the 703–803-MHz range. Since Verizon and FirstNet broadband and LMR 700 are already in this spectrum in the United States, it is not practical to try to make use of it.

The T-Band 470–512-MHz is not included in any of the FDD or TDD LTE spectrum allocations. It does not offer enough spectrum in any given city (12 MHz total) for a reasonable FDD LTE transmit and receive split and the chances of it being used for TDD LTE in my estimation are slim to none. Add to this that this spectrum is only available in eleven major markets and the rest of the country is using this spectrum for its original purpose, which was to provide channels for TV stations, and there is yet another reason to limit the value of the T-Band spectrum.

The questions then boil down to who would want spectrum only in eleven major metro areas, who would then pay the estimated $billions in relocation fees for public safety (not including business users), and to where would these public safety systems be relocated? At one point the FCC was talking about using the T-Band for low-powered TV stations and translators but companies that do that are not inclined to pay much for spectrum. If the FCC were to offer the spectrum to them for nothing we would have more of a problem because there would be nowhere to move T-Band users to and no money with which to move them.

The value of spectrum varies widely based on the answers to my above questions. If you remember back to the AWS-3 auction (which funded the $7billion starter fund for FirstNet with the bulk of the $Billions coming from AT&T), it generated $44 billion in auction revenue. The price paid for this spectrum was more than had ever been paid for spectrum per-MHz in the United States. If you fast forward to the 600-MHz auction it was not nearly as successful for several reasons. First, carriers had all decided that 5G small cells were the be-all, end-all for capacity and speed increases in metro markets. The 600-MHz spectrum is great for more of the same LTE systems already on 700-MHz and other portions of the spectrum, but only spectrum above 2.5-GHz is really suitable for small cell. Many TV channels went unsold, and the price paid for the spectrum that was auctioned was much lower than expected. Verzion did not win a single piece of the spectrum even though it was registered to bid, and it stated beforehand that it really wanted 5G spectrum, not 600-MHz spectrum. As it turned out, Verizon did not bid on FirstNet either saying it simply did not need the spectrum. Not all of the spectrum was bid on and won and the bidding totaled $19.8billion, well below AWS-3 receipts.

Those who believe spectrum, regardless of where it is located in the RF spectrum, is worth a lot of money do not understand the issues. To raise money at an auction it needs to have nationwide availability and be in part of the spectrum where LTE or 5G spectrum is in demand. To try to convert 150–170-MHz from Land Mobile Radio to broadband mobile would end up with no one at the bidders’ table. Perhaps there are better future uses for this spectrum but not today and not with it encumbered with many different classes of license holders. The same goes for the 450–470-MHz and 800-MHz public safety bands.

The law that created FirstNet included a provision that the 12 MHz of 700-MHz spectrum used for LMR public safety communications could, at some future time, be converted to more broadband spectrum but only for public safety. That would not generate any revenue and would cause even more problems with LMR systems in the 700-MHz band that are deployed coast to coast including entire states such as Michigan. It appears as though those who are elected and can change the wireless landscape with their votes lose interest in converting a lot of spectrum to broadband when they come to understand that the highest and best use for spectrum in some portions of the RF spectrum is not for mobile broadband.

The AM broadcast band (525 KHz to 1705 KHz) is good for AM radio but at night local stations sometimes have to compete with interference from stations in other cities. As we move up the band into the MHz-region, we find long-distance ship-to-shore, country-to-country, amateur radio, and other forms of communications in spectrum that is not at all suited for broadband services. Then we reach VHF, UHF, and higher and some of this spectrum is great for broadband but some, such as 600-MHz and 700-MHz spectrum is better for larger cells with more coverage—the higher the spectrum the less range. 5G is based on the premise that there will be many small cells that are part of the network and users will move from one to another seamlessly as with cellular. However, since they are small cells with a lot of bandwidth, they will be able to deliver more capacity and data speeds.

Some people could have become very rich if they had realized four or five years ago that the real value for spectrum would shift to 2 GHz and above. However, until only a few years ago, the concept of cellular was the same: more towers closer together, and over time adding microcells. While 5G is a logical move forward, it was not widely considered viable until recently and now every carrier, cable tv company, and others want to play in this space.

The value of spectrum to the federal government depends on how many companies want access to the spectrum and for what purpose. 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) seem to be the big drivers today, which leaves spectrum such as the T-Band and, thankfully, the rest of the public safety spectrum as spectrum having value to be sure, but not enough for elected officials to see visions of national debt dollars floating before their eyes.

The Last Word

The UK has come to understand that in order to move its public safety community over to LTE in the next two years or so it will have to use Tetra for off-network PTT since LTE won’t be anywhere close to providing this capability.

Sonim has announced it will be providing off-network PTT using licensed P-25 channels and Harris’s XP-200p has four bands of LMR and FirstNet, too (once approved by AT&T). There will be more products coming, and a larger variety of options. At some point, the technology will enable a single device with lots of LMR capability and FirstNet with long battery life. Until then, public safety needs to be able to use LMR and FirstNet through different devices: FirstNet for information, visual prompts, video of the scene, and more; LMR for normal day-to-day voice communications that have for years worked and saved lives.

When we were all working with Congress and I was presenting at APCO broadband summits, I had a set of PowerPoints that compared and contrasted LMR and LTE. Perhaps it is time to dust them off, update them, and hold a few Wireless Universities again!

Andrew M. Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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